The most popular children’s author of the 20th century didn’t have kids of his own. “You make ’em, and I’ll amuse ’em,” Dr. Seuss once said. And he amused ’em as well as any author who ever lived. Seuss’s books of sing-song verse and zany drawings have flourished. The website of Dr. Seuss Enterprises claims that more than half a billion copies of The Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham, and other titles are in print. Not even death has slowed Seuss down: The majority of these books have been bought since he died in 1991. To borrow a line from The Lorax, Seuss’s success just keeps on biggering and biggering and biggering.
His books have encouraged untold numbers of children to read, but Seuss also stuffed his stories with political themes, usually liberal ones — and almost nowhere was he more aggressive about it than in the book that blasted business for all of its biggering. The Lorax was one of Seuss’s later books, coming out in 1971. The author often said that it was his favorite. On its pages, Seuss lampooned the rapacious greed of a straw-man capitalist and celebrated the environmental activism of the title character, who “speaks for the trees.” The influence of The Lorax and its leftward slant is already vast — and it only will grow when the movie adaptation arrives in theaters on March 2.
The author was born Theodor Seuss Geisel in 1904, and he never pursued a medical degree. In 1927, Ted (as friends called him) started using his middle name as a pseudonym, soon adding “Dr.” as a whimsical afterthought. (“I was saving the name of Geisel,” said Seuss, according to biographers Judith and Neil Morgan, “for the Great American Novel.”) Although raised by Republican parents, Seuss turned into an FDR Democrat in the 1930s. By the 1940s, he was illustrating PM, a short-lived daily newspaper whose brand of politics earned an entry in Oxford University Press’s Encyclopedia of the American Left. Most of the entry is devoted to a debate over whether PM was Communist.
During World War II, Seuss savaged all the right people: Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito. His caricatures of the Japanese emperor — slit-eyed and buck-toothed — would fail most of today’s standards of political correctness, but he was also ahead of his time in calling for racial integration in the U.S. military. Even way back then, his style was recognizably Seussian, full of bizarre people and animals. One of his wartime drawings, published in the 2001 collection Dr. Seuss Goes to War, appeared a few months before Pearl Harbor. It shows a figure labeled “The Appeaser.” He stands on a rock, holding four lollypops and surrounded by sea monsters wearing swastika tattoos. “Remember,” says the appeaser, “One More Lollypop, and Then You All Go Home!”
If this is liberalism, it’s a fighting liberalism that many of today’s conservatives can applaud. The same may be said for several of Seuss’s most popular books for kids. Yertle the Turtle, published in 1958, took aim at tyranny. It was “modeled on the rise of Hitler,” explained Seuss, and it told the story of a dictatorial turtle and his toppling: “And today the great Yertle, that Marvelous he, / Is King of the Mud. That is all he can see. / And the turtles, of course . . . all turtles are free / As turtles and, maybe, all creatures should be.” Three years later, The Sneetches took on anti-Semitism. It tells of yellow birdlike beings who hold a harebrained brawl over which ones have green stars on their bellies and which don’t, and ends with a clear plea for tolerance.
On at least a couple of occasions, Seuss’s themes veered to the right. In the 1948 book Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose, a collection of freeloading critters take up residence in Thidwick’s antlers. They’re like an Occupy Seuss movement, as these “hard-hearted guests” exploit the kindness of a “soft-hearted moose.” They boss Thidwick around, telling him what he may do and where he may go, even putting his life at risk. Modern readers may see it as a parable of uncontrolled immigration. More fundamentally, it’s about the importance of private property — and the villains’ comeuppance is the story’s satisfying climax. A 1965 book, I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew, is deeply anti-utopian.
One of Seuss’s most successful books was Horton Hears a Who, published in 1954. An elephant named Horton encounters the Whos, a band of microscopic people who inhabit a speck of dust. Horton’s friends don’t believe in the wee folk. They persecute Horton and try to destroy the speck, giving rise to Horton’s principled refrain: “A person’s a person, no matter how small.” Two decades later, following the Roe v. Wade decision, pro-lifers adopted the line as a slogan. Seuss always objected, and his widow has continued to complain. In 2001, Action Life Ottawa featured the phrase in material distributed through the local archdiocese. Lawyers for Mrs. Geisel demanded removal, and the Canadians complied. Even so, the words continue to pop up beside pictures of fetuses on highway billboards.
At times, Seuss turned partisan. In 1974, during the height of the Watergate controversy, Art Buchwald of the Washington Post dared Seuss to write an explicitly political book. Seuss responded by grabbing a copy of Marvin K. Mooney Will You Please Go Now!, which he had put out two years earlier, and replacing the name of the title character with the name of the president, fashioning Richard M. Nixon Will You Please Go Now! Buchwald loved it and, with Seuss’s blessing, printed the mashed-up text in his newspaper column. Nine days later, Nixon really did go, resigning from office. Seuss was thrilled. “We should have collaborated sooner,” he wrote to Buchwald.
In 1984, Seuss released The Butter Battle Book, which his publicists promoted in after-school-special language as “probably the most important book Dr. Seuss has ever created.” It describes blue-suited Yooks who like to eat their bread with the “butter side up” and orange-suited Zooks who like the “butter side down.” Their differences spark a perilous arms race, as the Zooks and Yooks strive to build a series of ever-deadlier screwball weapons. By the story’s end, they’re marching into underground bunkers to protect themselves from the Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroo, a clear reference to “Little Boy,” the code name for the Hiroshima bomb. Seuss called The Butter Battle Book “an echo of my days as a political cartoonist.” One of the main characters is a warmongering grandfather, an obvious stand-in for Ronald Reagan, the aging president who challenged the Soviet Union with a defense buildup. Reagan understood the Cold War as a grand struggle against the menace of Communism. Seuss saw only moral equivalence, as if the choice between freedom and totalitarianism amounted to no more than an eating preference.
Virtually alone among Seuss’s works for children, The Butter Battle Book finishes on a note of threatening uncertainty. The conclusion of The Lorax is more hopeful, but its full vision is nearly as dark and spiteful, quite different from the brightness and laughter that most parents and teachers associate with Seuss. “Every once in a while I get mad,” said Seuss in 1983. “The Lorax came out of my being angry.” So he channeled his rage into his work: “The ecology books I’d read were dull. . . . In The Lorax I was out to attack what I think are evil things and let the chips fall where they might.” A few years earlier, he had described his method more bluntly: “The Lorax book was intended to be propaganda.”
The tale involves the Once-ler, a mysterious green figure who chops down candy-colored Truffula Trees to produce “thneeds,” furry garments that serve no useful purpose but become a fad to own. The Once-ler, who narrates, builds a factory and begins mass production: “So I quickly invented my Super-Axe-Hacker / which whacked off four Truffula Trees at one smacker.” Before long, the factory spews smoke, pollutes ponds, and imperils wildlife. A forest of Truffula Trees transforms into stump country, over the barking protests of the Lorax, a bean-shaped orange gnome who sports a yellow mustache. “I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues,” he says. By the end of the book, just about everyone has lost. The noble Lorax fails to preserve the trees and the animals that depend on them. The avaricious Once-ler, having cut down the last Truffula Tree, goes out of business. Yet a single seed survives. The Once-ler, now shuttered away in shame, bequeaths it to a wide-eyed boy and speaks the book’s final lines: “Plant a new Truffula. Treat it with care. / Give it clean water. And feed it fresh air. / Grow a forest. Protect it from axes that hack. / Then the Lorax and all of his friends may come back.”
The Lorax contains some of the best poetry Seuss ever wrote, but its words march in the service of the book’s simple-minded political message: business bad, environmentalism good. Within months of publication, the Keep America Beautiful campaign gave Seuss an award because it believed The Lorax would persuade children to become “pollution fighters.” In Your Favorite Seuss, a 2004 compendium of 13 Seuss classics, folk singer Pete Seeger wrote an introduction to The Lorax: “If something wrong is being done to the environment, speak up as the Lorax did. Talk to your parents, your teachers, your legislators.” Last year, on the 40th anniversary of The Lorax, Emma Marris of Nature, the science journal, called the book “a kind of Silent Spring for the playground set,” referring to the 1962 work by Rachel Carson that is often said to have launched the modern environmental movement. The Lorax is now a popular character at Earth Day festivals, especially in elementary schools — an association that Seuss’s publisher, Random House, cheers on.
And now the book is a big-budget movie, ready to amuse — and influence — a new generation.